I’m working my way through Retromania by Simon Reynolds, a book that explores why we seem so fascinated with fetishizing music of the recent past.
Retro can be loosely defined as everything old is new again. Anything can be retro: fashion, art, advertising, movies, TV and, of course, music.
Reynolds points out that for the first time in human history, we’ve never been this obsessed with our own immediate past. Retro isn’t some antiquarian pursuit. We’re nostalgic for things within recent living memory.
We still worship the music of the 60s. The rock giants of the 70s — Zeppelin, the Stones — are as big as they ever were. Clubs still hold Retro 80s nights and acts like OMD and Spandau Ballet are on the road again. Lately, it’s been all about celebrating the grunge era of the 90s with reunions (Soundgarden), documentaries (Pearl Jam) and commemorative CD reissues (Nirvana, U2).
Meanwhile, current acts have become very successful by recycling the past. I love the White Stripes, but hasn’t Jack White just put a fresher garage-rock spin on the blues? The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol are New Wave and post-punk with new coats of paint. Isn’t Lady Gaga just Madonna 2.0? And while Adele, Amy and Duffy have made brilliant records, they sound like something transported ahead from 1966.
And think about this: give me a single new sound/genre that will endure beyond the first years of the 21st century? There have been a few — grime, dubstep, maybe whatever Kanye is doing — but I’m not sure we’ll be wistful about this music ten years from now. A big part of why we keep recycling the music of the old innovators is because of technology. With the Internet, it’s never been easier to access the past. And because so much of our immediate musical past has been preserved through YouTube, iTunes and millions of fan websites, it’s easier to mine it for ideas and influences. That’s great.
But what happens when we run out of the past? Do we just start over? Or has as this music been around long enough that it’s become an artifact and can now only feed on itself? Or will someone have come along to push popular music forward?
These are all extremely big questions. Something to think about the next time you hear about the next big reunion tour.
– Alan is the host of the radio show The Secret History of Rock. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org